Counting the famous dead of 2016



20, Dec 2016

The common social media-driven assumption is that 2016 has been a harsh year to celebrities. BBC and Telegraph among others explored the data and theories behind this assumption. While celebrity deaths have increased compared to last year, there was a major spike only in the first quarter of 2016. While people may themselves be astonished at the pain they experience when their icon dies, psychologists explain why this happens.

What is the final tally?

The BBC’s list of celebrity deaths in 2016 was prepared to test the accuracy of the common refrain across social media that there were an unusually large number of celebrity deaths this year.

  • The BBC compared the list of pre-prepared obituaries it had used in 2016 with usage in previous years.
  • From this “quite crude way” of estimation which, as BBC pointed out, which also suffers from the broad and subjective definition of celebrities and does not take into account obituaries written after the death of celebrities, BBC came up with a comparative analysis.
  • As of December 2016, there have been 42 deaths in total. This figure is higher than the previous values. From 2012 to 2016 with each year, the total count for that year has increased from 16 through 24 through 29 through 32 to 42.
  • Across this whole year therefore, there has been a 30 percent rise in BBC pre-prepared obituaries in relation to the previous year.
  • But in his assessment of 2016’s celebrity deaths, the BBC's Obituaries Editor Nick Serpell says this year, in actual fact, has not been so dangerous and fateful for the famous.

Why do celebrity deaths evoke a personal sense of loss?

Some psychologists explain this common tendency to grieve genuinely for a celebrity.

  • Celebrities provide cherishable childhood memories and experiences. Fans inspired by a celebrity want to emulate her or him. These stars also provide solace and motivation in times of despair and make a deeper impact on their fans at a personal level.So their loss brings about grief and also reminds fans of their own mortality, says David Kaplan, chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association. He points out “The truth is, there’s no rulebook when it comes to grief. But just because we can’t explain grief doesn’t mean it’s invalidated, Kaplan says — and that especially goes for grieving a celebrity.
  • Social media plays a role with regular updates on a celebrity’s life and a platform to connect with other grieving fans.Positive and emotional experiences concerning the celebrity when shared by a genuine individual reach out to other fans and touch a chord.

When do we see the reasons for the perception?

  • When Serpell assembled his data for the first quarter of 2016, he noticed an alarming difference; twice as many as famous personalities had died in this period of this year as compared to 2015; the count was five time that of 2012.
  • This spike at the beginning of the year could have significantly contributed to the perception that several celebrities had died in 2016. More than 50 percent of the deaths occurred in the first four months of 2016 and the skewed statistics could have provided the basis for the perception.

If factors such as age, lifestyle, social media’s pervasive influence and the worth of the celebrity tag are overlooked, statistics on celebrity deaths can easily propel the perception to the forefront.

Where might be the reasons 2016 is perceived as a celebrity killer?

  • The deaths happened one after the other; David Bowie and Alan Rickman died in the same week; Gary Shandling and Johan Cruyff died on the same day and exactly one week later, Ronnie Corbett and Dame Zaha Hadid breathed their last. Andrew Brown, obituaries editor of the Telegraph feels these closely spaced deaths could have distorted perception.
  • Their counterculture lifestyle took its toll. Brown points to the possibility that pop stars of the 60s and 70s, who were symbols of sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle of the period succumbed to the ill effects of hard lifestyle as age made its presence felt. He gives examples of Bowie, Howard Marks, Keith Emerson, and Paul Kantner.
  • Many more have - and even for weird reasons - become the centre of attention. As Telegraph points out, David Gest made famous by his status as the fourth husband of Liza Minelli and as a contestant on the reality TV series I’m a CelebrityGet Me Out of Here!” was accorded a 1120-word obituary in the paper; something that would not have happened ten years ago.
  • Social media serves as a platform not only to share grief but also carries it beyond barriers of the earlier times.

The Telegraph concludes:The theory that there are just more celebrities – per 1,000 head of population – combined with the fact that many had a terribly unhealthy lifestyle is the most compelling reason why so many have died in recent months.

Who died from unknown causes and where were the coincidences?

DW prepared a death list of 110 notable figures in music, film and TV, politics, science and technology, literature and society. It observed that most lists including its own had significantly more male personalities.

  • It found 23 cases where the cause of death was not immediately made public. With some personalities such as Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, this was more easily understandable.
  • The average age of those who died from unknown causes is 86; futurist Alvin Toffler and holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel were 87. The main reason in not revealing cause is a respect for privacy.


  • Kenny Baker, Tony Dyson, Erik Bakersfield, and Bib Fortuna were associated with the Star Wars films.
  • Prince and his protégé Vanity died at the age of 57; he was rich at the time of his death and she was in poverty.
  • Two esteemed American journalists Morley Safer and Jeanne Parr who worked for the CBS network died.
  • Henry McCollough, Burt Kwouk and Guy Hamilton were James Bond associates.

The youngest person in the list was a 14-year-old girl known as “JS”. She made British legal history when, at her request, the High Court consented for her body to be cryogenically preserved so she could die in the hope that she would be brought back to life in the future and treated for her cancer.

How acceptable is the theory that more people are dying?

If not worldwide, at least in England and Wales, this theory is not satisfactory.

  • The Office for National Statistics (ONS) says there have been 156,041 deaths from the beginning of this year till April 8.This is only a little more than 3 percent higher than the average over the last half-decade. An ONS spokesperson told Telegraph: “This is within the bounds of normal variance.”
  • Wikipedia’s list of notable deaths including less famous people such as academics and clergymen recorded 2,109 deaths between January 1 and April 21 this year; the count was 2,202 over the same period in 2015.

How many people die in a year, on an average

  • estimated in 2011 that approximately 55 million people die in a given year. This translates to 151,600 deaths per day, 6,300 deaths per hour and 105 deaths per minute. The world is a very morbid place after all. That you have made it to 2017 in itself is a cause for celebration - even if you did not act on any of your many New Year 2016 resolutions.

Note:Worldometers maintains a record of real time events happening around the globe. The number of deaths and births today and so far this year can be seen changing in the blink of an eye on this site which provides a lot of other information as well.

For in-depth analysis of many such topics, download Knappily.  KNAPPILY is a must-have app for anyone who wants to know more, to know better and to know faster.

Tags | 2016 celebrity deaths famous dead Telegraph